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Completing the Brushstroke: A Review of Shin Yu Pai’s ENSŌ

 

Process. The liminal space. A full circle.

In her new hybrid text, ENSŌ, Shin Yu Pai confronts the ineffability of the artistic journey. If a poet’s field of vision includes a wide variety of disciplines and experiences, from ekphrasis to a study of poetic forms, to field work, to life-changing events such as the birth of a child, to the confrontation of racial tensions, and to a full-bodied analysis of one’s own works that spans years, then ENSŌ represents this realization to the highest degree. This is fitting, especially given the book’s title, which is the Japanese word for “circle.” “Ensō” can also mean a single breath or brushstroke, drawing on Zen Buddhist practice, along with the complete circle of life. Pai’s recent release is a refreshing collection, its vast exploration and fusion of forms innovatively expanding the possibilities of literary hybridity. Moreover, it’s captivating to step back and listen to the poet explain the ekphrastic process of her writing. Hence, we get the complete circle through Pai’s documentation of her journey.

ENSŌ is divided into ten main sections: “Sixteen Pillars,” “Haiku Present,” “The Ekphrastic Impulse,” “Making Books,” “Mothering Time,” “Heirloom,” “Same Cloth,” “Without Words,” “Animating the Text,” and “ENSŌ,” each of which begins with a chapter page featuring an incomplete circle graphic. Introducing her book, Pai acknowledges the indescribable nature of poetry: “I regard poems as embodying a certain quality of grace. Vessels that reach beyond words to approach the ineffability of an offering, alchemized through the heart.” It’s particularly striking that Pai immediately emphasizes the act of poetry as “alchemized through the heart.” After all, in order for the full circle of poetic epiphany to happen, a poet must reach into their emotional core. That’s where all the strongest voltas of poetry occur.

Throughout ENSŌ, we get many pieces of the poet’s heart, starting with the opening section, “Sixteen Pillars,” where she reflects on her lifelong visits to the Andō gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. Pai shares not only her growing love of ekphrastic poetry, but also the early precedent set by her parents to experience Asian art and culture. Fittingly, the first poem of the collection, “The Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion,” reflects on process, while also giving us careful ekphrastic lyric reminiscent of properties of haiku:

Entering a darkened room
to pass between sixteen pillars
of equal height and depth,
ten feet high and one foot square,

I place my hand against the grain
hold my ear to a column
listening for something
like the sound of trees.

Across the room
six folded screens
of colored ink and gold on silk

the specks of turquoise in those mountains
glimmering points of light

The opening poem begins where Pai begins: entering the gallery. Throughout, we notice the painterly qualities or the “Ensō incomplete brushstroke,” with lines such as “the specks of turquoise in those mountains.” Even in lyric, Pai does not neglect the artistic process. The image of the “six folded screens” is both purposeful and calming, inviting us into the world of the painting. While the poet is in motion towards the “six folded screens” in the gallery, we the audience are also moving in this ekphrastic direction.

The analogy of the incomplete brushstroke in relation to Ensō is extremely fitting. Notably, Pai reflects on the lasting impression of the Andō gallery, a space she would continuously revisit, even in her memories, thus highlighting the importance of space in inspiring art:

Andō’s gallery, by contrast, belonged to me alone. I had spent days, weeks, and months in the space watching life unfold and looking for something to be revealed to me about the rhythms of human life. Observed how bodies in a gallery mirrored the changing seasons, and surroundings, illuminating the analogy between Japanese time and human experience. People became the art, as their personhood was magnified by the contrast with minimalism and the silence of the space.

Reflecting on the intersections between her artistic and personal journeys, Pai contrasts these ideas of magnitude with minimalism. People really do become the art, a point Pai makes evident through ENSŌ’s various collaborative projects.

Reflecting on her relationship with her partner, Pai writes: “We continued to evolve as a couple. Our lives shifted as we tested new geographies together.” But these personal shifts also inform the art. Pai recalls confronting numerous racial and gender dynamics during these moves and how such interactions continuously prompted her to create art in response.

She also reflects on the relationship between poetry and beauty: “I wanted to return to the origin, a time before poetry emerged in me, to recover a deeper calling to beauty.” Beauty in poetry is not objective, and thus, the framing of the incomplete brushstroke is all the more fitting—a sort of wabi-sabi effect. It’s this “deeper calling to beauty” that also continuously frames Ensō and arguably “completes the brushstroke.” It’s this “deeper calling to beauty” that unites Pai with her mother: “The distance between my mother and me pointed me towards poetry, as a kind of idealized space where I could find a common language with her, through exploring her creative vocabulary and gestures.” It’s also this “deeper calling to beauty” that makes Pai fully realized as an artist. She reflects on how identity informs perspective and then informs art. She reflects on her identity as an Asian American writer who “focused on hybridity, parallels between processes, and the ways of seeing that are unique to visual and poetic practice.”

“Haiku Present,” a standout section of the book, unifies Pai’s philosophies, finds the poet reflecting on the process of “daily observations and human connection,” on the stripped-down quality and informed observation:

game show’s lone female
hopeful buzzes in the answer first:
what is the glass ceiling?

Here’s another standout haiku that unifies themes in the book:

bra shopping deterred
by the anarchists gathering
Occupy Westlake Park

In these two haikus, the speaker confronts the difficulties of being a woman of color in this world. In an even broader sense, they speak to the ideas inherent in ENSŌ, because as a woman of color, Pai is always trying to “complete the brushstroke.” And how does a woman “complete the brushstroke” in this world? How does she break through the “glass ceiling” both metaphorically and literally? The answer begins in poetry; and in the final section, aptly titled “ENSŌ,” Pai opens, “Poetry is the highest form of communication that can exist between two individuals. It is, in fact, a form of right speech. Poetry as prayer, invocation, overture, and claim; a fundamental act of defiance through speaking the world into being.” I love this emphasis on “speaking the world into being.” In creating poetry, a speaker “speaks the universe into being,” and through art, we get confrontation of social, cultural, and political issues. In fighting to complete that brushstroke, Pai fully gives us ENSŌ, the complete circle.

Process is both endless and beautiful, forever and poetic.

 

Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back, Revenge of the Asian Woman, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets. She is a two-time Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, a 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Poetry Editor of Hobart, Book Review Co-Editor of Pleiades, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Honey Literary.

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